In Monday's Style section, the name of comic book writer Harvey Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, was misspelled. (Published 11/4/87)
God forbid our children should ever see a chicken killed for Sunday dinner, but we like to think we're wired into the way things really are. The raw truth. The back-alley grit. Educated Americans live in protective bubbles of money, media and prudery that rise from the psychic landscape like those big gray blisters people play tennis in all winter. But there's this nagging appetite for what we think of as "authenticity," be it in figurines from the Franklin Mint, pickup trucks, WASP clothing with little polo-players stitched on it or, for a select few -- a cult, even -- the comic books that Harvey Pekar has written about himself: "From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes AMERICAN SPLENDOR -- The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar."
Such life. Such times. Harvey Pekar (pronounced PEE-kar) is a balding GS-4 file clerk in a Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland -- a "flunky file clerk," he calls himself, an "alienated schlep" and paranoid sniveler who freeloads doughnuts, whines about loneliness and screams at women he calls "rotten bitches" until he loses his voice. He has holes in his undershirts. His nose runs. He steals his neighbor's newspaper. He worries about success, because "what right would I have to complain about anything?"
Friday night, the Old Vat Room at Arena Stage began previews of "American Splendor," a play adapted from the 12 comic books. Doubleday has put out two collections of stories from them. David Letterman has had him on "Late Night" twice. He is 48, a published jazz and book critic, but he knew there had to be more, that his day would come. He's been telling people that Fox Broadcasting even wanted him to audition as a talk show host, and he said no.
He loves telling about how he said no.
"Would you want a talk show? No? Why? I don't want one either, so you and me are on the same wavelength," he says in the frantic tenor of a man whose life involves a lot of fighting his way out of corners or getting other people into them. "I say how can you question me if you don't want a talk show yourself?"
He is in a Maine Avenue seafood restaurant called the Gangplank, sitting next to his third wife.
"He's got no shame, he's got no pride," she says. Her name is Joyce Grabner. She's 33, with thin bangs and huge glasses, and something about her that makes you think of used-book stores and bad arguments.
"I'm certainly not the kind of guy who's ..."
"He hasn't grabbed the brass ring, which a lot of those guys would've. I mean, he gets offered a talk show on Fox."
"I don't have salable skills, I can't even type," Pekar says, as if he has said it to a hundred employment counselors, a thousand girlfriends.
"I'm teaching him how to type."
"She will never do it, she will never ..."
"I do it to humor her."
"He does it to humor me. He's getting better at it. The truth of the matter is that I think that Harvey has got some kind of learning disability because ..."
"She has no way of saying that, no way."
"Do I get to say this?"
"I don't know that I have no shame," Pekar says. His upper lip lifts and the corners of his mouth turn down so you see a plaintive trapezoid of teeth. "I just don't think it's any big deal if I stole something when I was a kid and I write about it, or, you know, I was manipulative. Misery loves company. I know the people identify with my work a lot, they say it means a lot to 'em when they write me letters ..."
Pekar is a hair-in-the-sink realist who shows us a world of iffy morals and petty pleasures amid vistas of meaninglessness bordered by oblivion. The rent is due, the news is bad, the view is phone wires, old cars and people with their shoulders hunched against the cold.
The stories have titles such as "An Argument at Work," "In the Parking Lot" or "Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines." He writes the words and gets the pictures drawn by artist friends, including R. Crumb, who was the biggest star of the underground comics scene in the late '60s. The effect is one of cartoon monologues about Harvey Pekar skulking around Cleveland and hating his job; pushing his girlfriend's car out of the snow; eating hot dogs and potato chips for dinner; buying used shoes; bitching at editors, bosses and coworkers; trying to get to sleep; masturbating; stealing records from a radio station's library; yelling at an ex-wife; and generally coming on like the 5 o'clock shadow on the face of American life.
"Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day" begins on a Sunday night with Pekar walking down the street over a word panel that says: "It's been a bummer weekend. All he's done is hang out on the corner and watch TV." He thinks about how he broke up with his girlfriend a week ago. He thinks about how another woman he knows is a "rotten little flake." He thinks: "The weekends are lousy and the weekdays are lousy. It's just a different kind of lousy."
He goes home to his apartment. He decides not to watch an Abbott and Costello movie on television. He brushes his teeth. He goes to bed. He gets up, shaves, goes to work, schmoozes with the guys on the loading dock about the football game and hangs around the office. By afternoon, he says: "I only feel normally lousy. I hate t'admit it, but workin' sort of helps me keep from goin' nuts. When yer alone alla time, like I am some weekends, y' start concentratin' on yer problems an' thinkin' yer the only person in the world." He concludes: "Sometimes things seem so heavy, other times everything seems like a joke."
That's it, another slice of American life that Harvey Pekar sits on top of, like a fly on a piece of processed cheese.
Why does anyone care?
To begin with, this relentless pursuit of the mundane begins to seem like an enormous gag, like the late Andy Kaufman standing up on stage and lip-syncing to a record of the Mighty Mouse song, or Andy Warhol putting on an endless movie consisting of a single view of the Empire State Building. These stories combine stupendous egotism with Pekar's utter harmlessness in a tour de force of schlemieldom. We're used to people confessing moral monstrosities on the "Donahue" show or in People magazine, but who has the guts and ego to go public with confessions of stinginess, chasing women because they're easy to get and shouting pointless obscenities at coworkers? What a joke! What chutzpah!
Pekar is also a classic American character, one of the last of the hipsters you'd see slouching around city downtowns 20 or 30 years ago, picking through the jazz bins at record stores, their pockets full of bus transfers and library cards and their peripheries blurred by a smog of willful poverty, street wisdom and egomania. Not hippies, yippies, beatniks, flower children, Weathermen, punks, Panthers, Maoists, Taoists, cosmic cowboys or sweethearts of the cocaine rodeo. We're talking about a much subtler breed of American human: underground men and saints of self-consciousness with the collective face of a Baltimore Harbor Tunnel guard.
(Where have they all gone? Who still journeys with Ce'line to the end of the night in bare-lightbulb apartments? Who never watches television, except for "Attack of the Giant Leeches," which they maintain is the greatest movie ever made, though they only watch it for the carpet warehouse ads? What sexual revolutionaries and sidewalk existentialists lope around in those thick-soled Thom McAn "heavy acid" shoes? Who rants about conspiracies over breakfasts of cigarettes and hot dog rolls? Who steals Allen Ginsberg's syntax? O lost ... )
Finally, Harvey Pekar and his comic books seem authentic -- and in an age when we learn how to raise children by reading books and find out what the weather is by making a phone call, there's an audience for authentic.
The question is: Does authentic mean real?
Pekar puts himself in the realist tradition. "I started writing comic books when I was 32," he says. "Which is kind of old, and by that time I had a hell of a lot of influences, like novelists and short-story writers and comedians like Lenny Bruce and movies like 'The Bicycle Thief,' stuff like that. But I think probably that Dostoevsky, I remember reading that 'Notes From Underground' and being real impressed with it, but I was also impressed with, you know, anything like George Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London,' I don't know if you're familiar with it."
Pekar's books certainly seem real. They confirm our worst suspicions about low-rent, near-ghetto, polyester-collar, lumpen-treadmill urban life. Existence is a self-deluding struggle to get through the day. The characters are trapped in a swamp of typicalities. Pekar is fascinated with invidious stereotypes: Jews are stingy, bosses are jerks, women are snooty, everybody hates his job. In a strip called "Pickled Okra," a black office worker says: "ah ain' nevah ate no pickled okry befo' ..." Pekar even shows himself speaking in dialect -- most people only notice it in others, but Pekar is the eternal spectator, especially of himself.
The problem is, Pekar's stories show us not so much the world of the lower classes, but that world as a lot of people in the upper classes see it. There's grittiness and poverty, and all of it fits snugly into their preconceptions. Hence authenticity. To be authentic, all you have to do is seem real, not be real. Which is to say that authenticity is an idea and reality is reality. (And before attempting to think about this at home, be sure to consult a professional esthetician.)
Along with the bleakness, why doesn't Pekar show us the richness in the lives of the lower classes, who have their myths and fervent legends to protect them from despair just as the upper classes do -- the demigods and popular gospel of honor, Elvis, religion, J.R. Ewing, stock cars, cancer cures, lotteries, patriotism, television ... ?
"I'm not into myths, I'm not into legends, I'm anticeremony, I'm antinationalistic, I mean, you know, I'm sorry that people have to get through that way," he says.
"Put it this way," Grabner says. "You put him in a beautiful environment, he'd see bleak. It's true, Harvey, the knee-jerk pessimist, the Jewish tragedy, what's the difference?"
"Joyce, I believe the question was directed to me."
"Let's see if he writes down your answer."
"I used to live in a real bleak grim neighborhood where there was a lot of bitterness around me."
"We don't live in the gritty city," Grabner says. "There's a lot of things you need to know about Cleveland, including it's nicknamed the Forest City because they have this terrific urban forestry, so where we live we have more goddam trees than most people have out in the country ..."
Here in the seafood restaurant, with government employes taking Friday slides to climb onto bar stools with the same hearty finesse that Hell's Angels climb onto motorcycles with, Pekar says: "One of the reasons I write is to push people's face into life rather than to have them try to escape it. If people started to face up to their responsibility as citizens and started to read the goddam paper and find out what the hell was going wrong with the goddam country and worry as much about politics as they know about pro football ... and I know something about pro football too, you know, I'm a sports fan, I think if they did that they wouldn't, like, elect some guy to be president, some guy who's mediocre, and they choose him, they'll pick people for political office who are, you know, who are like them."
Wait a second. Who is he to be condescending -- this childless, middle-aged college dropout with 22 years in the same job, this shameless flunky whose wife made a doll of him with an "anatomically correct bald spot" and carried it around a booksellers' convention?
"Yeah, I'm kind of a klutzy guy, like a screw-up. I don't feel like I'm a loser but at a lot of things I'm inept, as Joyce has so eloquently testified. I mean, you know, starting with my mother always yelling and screaming at me for screwing up things, you know, I've had that image of myself pounded into myself ..."
Andnow he has the right to yell at everybody else?
"Well, first of all ..."
"Who yells at them otherwise?" Grabner demands.
Such life, such times, such arguments.
Grabner says: "We had a way of solving arguments that maybe we ought to start getting back to -- that he could pick me up in the air and I could scream and yell at him as long as I could keep a straight face, and he could yell at me as long as he could hold me up in the air. Then it became insufferably close to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn cute crap."
"I don't hold her over my head, I just pick her up, I don't know," Pekar says.
"He just holds me up in the air ..."
"You wouldn't be impressed."
"You'd be impressed," Grabner says.
"I'm strong for my size, I can do one-handed push-ups, okay? Like, you know, I'll do some out in the parking lot and prove it to you. It's a matter of public record, it's on tape ..."
"If you don't watch out you're gonna become like Norman Mailer," Grabner says.
"All I can tell you is that on the second David Letterman show I did some one-handed push-ups. I'll do them for you outside."
Outside, in the parking lot, in his lumberjack shirt and corduroy pants, Pekar lies down on his stomach. He puts one hand behind his back. He gets his balance, and he pushes himself up on one hand. He does this four times. It's quite a feat, and you know that when it's being done in a restaurant parking lot, it says something.
Grabner checks to see if anybody's looking, and doesn't say a word.